Creative Provocation, Reverse Brainstorming, and Analogy

After showing you the details of a few basic creativity techniques, I now get to my most favorite one: creative provocation! It is a bit more advanced, but I had huge successes with this one. It is part of a group of techniques that alter the initial question to foster more creativity. I will also show you reverse brainstorming.

Reverse Brainstorming

The reverse brainstorming technique simply inverts the initial question. Instead of asking how to solve a problem, ask how to make it worse. For exampe, if your goal is to reduce costs, ask how to increase costs. The fundamental approach is similar to brainstorming. However, there are a few important differences:

1: This should not be the first creativity technique you use. I find it best to start with a normal brainstorming, and then in a second round use reverse brainstorming to create a bit more creativity.

2: Some guidebooks recommend around sixty minutes for this topic, but in my experience that is much too long. I have used this technique a few times, and my feeling was always that this is fine for a few minutes, but if you do it too long, the mood in the group will sour, and they may grumble about wasting time on making things worse. They are right. Do this reverse brainstorming only briefly! The goal is not to have lots of ideas on how to make things worse, but rather to get some more ideas for improvement while thinking about what could make it worse. It is hard to give an exact time recommendation, as I usually watch the mood of the group and end the technique before they get unhappy. Sometimes this is after five minutes, sometimes after fifteen. But these five to fifteen minutes are helpful for getting the group out of conventional thinking and helps them be more creative.

3: This should also not be the last technique. Reverse brainstorming helps to freshen up the mind, and this should be utilized in another round of creativity techniques. My preference here is the creative provocation (see below).

Organizationally, this reverse brainstorming is similar to brainstorming but shorter. The (reversed) question is stated, and ideas are collected for a few minutes. You may have to overcome some resistance in the group, as this is (quite obviously) the wrong direction. It helps to explain why you are doing this, that this is only a short interval, and that soon the question will go into the right direction again.  Again, keep this short, and soon thereafter revert the question back to the normal one and ask if any of these “negative” ideas can also be reversed into positive ideas.


Another technique that rephrases the question is the analogy. The original question is used, and changed into a similar question in a different area. For example, if you plan to select a new site for a plant, you could use a similar question for a new town to move to for a new job. Many of the possible answers would be similar or overlapping. Or, if you develop a new product, use a similar product as an analogy.

This method succeeds and fails with the quality of the analogy. Hence, invest some time beforehand thinking about possible analogies. If you do not have a good analogy, try to avoid this method. Even if you have a good analogy, do not invest too much time into this method. Similar to reverse brainstorming, this technique is best used sandwiched between two other techniques (e.g., normal brainstorming and creative provocation). Its biggest benefit is to move the mind off the normal beaten paths, and it allows the participants to explore new ideas. In all likelihood, it is not one participant who will create a completely new idea based from this analogy, but that one participant has an analogy idea that inspires another participant to an idea for the original problem.

Creative Provocation

Finally, we get to my all-time favorite creativity technique: creative provocation! This is an advanced technique, especially for the moderator. It requires full attention of the moderator for success. While you can do normal brainstorming easily while being hungover, jet-lagged, or having a toothache, creative provocation requires your full attention and at least some understanding of the problem at hand. Furthermore, this technique must follow another creativity technique. It can be the last one in a series of creativity exercises, although there should be eventually another round for final solution afterward.

Based on a previous creativity technique, the moderator has to understand what holds the team back. In this creative provocation, this problem is then explicitly forbidden and excluded from the question. A core element of the solutions so far is no longer permissible. The challenge for the moderator is which part to forbid.

For example, I had a workshop where we designed the layout of an assembly line. The team had the problem of how to return the work-piece carrier back to the beginning of the line. In this creative provocation, I explicitly gave them the challenge that they are not allowed to use any work-piece carriers. This resulted in some grumbling from the team, but eventually they got to work. And – lo and behold – this resulted in a solution that the team was very proud of. The final solution included a lot of the ideas from this round, and also no longer had a work-piece carrier.

Another example was the shop floor layout, where the team had constant problems with the two-way roads taking up too much space. The creative provocation was to limit the team to one-way roads for this section of the factory. Again, the team grumbled, but soldiered on and found a solution. The final solution incorporated the one-way roads, and the team was ecstatic about this solution. One seasoned lean expert told me that this was the best-moderated workshop he ever had participated in (Thank you, Martin!!!).

After the creative provocation, you relax the constraints again and again allow the use of the part you forbade for the creative provocation. This creative provocation can be repeated with different constraints depending on the need for the workshop.

Buzzword Lists

Yet another approach to improve creativity is buzzword lists. These can be injected in any of the creativity techniques to create even more creativity. They are sometimes called Osborn Buzzword Lists, named after Alex Osborn (1888–1966), the author of brainstorming. The list is a couple of suggested verbs to modify the original question:

  • Adapt: Can I use something similar? What could I emulate?
  • Modify: Can I change the meaning, color, taste, shape, motion, odor, form, or other things?
  • Magnify: What can I add? Can I do it more often? Stronger? Higher? Longer? Larger? Heavier?
  • Minify: What can I reduce? Can I do it less often? Weaker? Lower? Shorter? Smaller? Lighter?
  • Substitute: What or who else can be of use? Other ingredients/parts/materials/techniques/power/place…?
  • Rearrange: Can the components be rearranged? Can the layout/pattern/sequence/place be rearranged?
  • Reverse: Can I change the direction, roles, orientation? Can I do it inside out or upside down?
  • Combine: Can I merge things? Can I blend things together?

This buzzword list can be used to revive a creativity process that has slowed down. Of course, not all words apply to all situations. You as the moderator have to choose which modifications you would like to ask. Additionally, you can also throw the entire list at the wall as fodder for thoughts for the entire team.

I have used all of the above techniques, and they do have their uses. However, I have spent most workshop time on creative provocation, usually with stunning results. In my next post I will combine the techniques of this and the last few posts for my boilerplate creativity workshop structure. Until then, go out, keep on tickling your gray cells, and organize your industry!

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